Tinder, bold brows and how to spot a narcissist

October 13, 2020 | Science, Society

Originally published February 13, 2019

UPDATE: In September 2020, Giacomin received an unusual – but significant – honour for this research: An Ig Nobel Prize. Presented by Annals of Improbable Research, the prize honours achievements that “make people laugh, then think.”

The prize is intended to spur an interest in science, medicine and technology by honouring scholarly work that is imaginative or unusual. Giacomin says it was exciting to find out she was being honoured with the prize. “When research appears surprising, people either want to learn more about it or they can easily dismiss it,” she says. “Like I teach my students, it is important to examine the scientific rigour with which a research question was studied.”

While the mention of Valentine’s Day may evoke images of romantic dinner reservations and grand bouquets, modern dating is more likely to involve perusing profiles of potential partners from the comfort of your couch.

But before you open Tinder tonight, one of MacEwan’s profs suggests swiping with a little more caution — her research finds you are more likely to swipe right on a narcissist.

“Narcissists tend to make more positive first impressions because their egoistic traits can be misperceived as high self-esteem, which is a socially valued quality,” explains Dr. Miranda Giacomin, assistant professor of psychology.

Giacomin studies how humans make first impressions, and the ways those impressions influence who we decide to vote for, befriend or date. In her recent research, she asked a group of research subjects to fill out narcissism questionnaires, then submit screenshots of their Tinder profiles.

She then showed those profiles to a separate group of research subjects (perceivers), asking them to rate the individuals on how narcissistic and how high in self-esteem they appeared to be. Though Giacomin found her perceivers could accurately detect narcissism, they were willing to overlook the red flags.

Egoistic traits can be misperceived as high self-esteem, which is a socially valued quality.
—Dr. Miranda Giacomin

“We tend to really like narcissists when we first encounter them. They’re often extroverted and we’re attracted to that confidence,” she explains. “So you might start dating someone, get invested, but then end up in an unsatisfying relationship. Downstream, narcissists are not good partners — they can be avoidant and uncaring.”

With the rise of smartphones, social media and dating apps — all offering endless opportunities to post selfies and receive affirmation — it’s easy to condemn today’s younger generations for being more narcissistic than the ones that came before. But Giacomin has an alternate explanation.

“I think there are just more ways for people to express narcissistic tendencies now. Before we never used to take pictures of ourselves and post them to get likes. There’s just more opportunity to engage in narcissistic behaviour.”

Besides, Giacomin’s other research suggests egoistic behaviour can be spotted in a more timeless way than an Instagram post.

After discovering that people could make accurate judgements of narcissism just by looking at another person’s face, Giacomin wanted to find out what part of the face led to that correct conclusion.

People can essentially detect narcissism from a single eyebrow.
—Dr. Miranda Giacomin

So she, alongside a research collaborator, cropped photos of the faces of people who had taken narcissism tests, and asked a new group of perceivers to detect narcissism. Those perceivers were successful in identifying narcissism when looking at the upper part of the face, so the researchers narrowed things down, showing images of just eyes, just eyebrows, or faces with the eyes or eyebrows removed. All cues pointed to the brows as the indicator for egoism.

“People can essentially detect narcissism from a single eyebrow,” explains Giacomin. “What we found is that grandiose narcissists have more distinct, darker, denser eyebrows.”

But before you’re tempted to take out your tweezers, Giacomin explains that narcissism is a range of behaviours, and everyone lands somewhere on the scale. There are actually times when it might be beneficial to tap into our more egoistic sides. “In a job interview it’s useful to present yourself in a positive light and be confident, charismatic and extroverted.”

However, when it comes to dating, research backs the practical experience of anyone who has gone through the trials of learning to love.

“In your romantic relationships you need to rein in those self-focused tendencies and concentrate on your partner and their needs.”

Read Dr. Giacomin’s research:

Get MacEwan University news delivered to your inbox.
Sign up for our weekly e-newsletter